As an ever-increasing number of networks and streaming providers try to claim their place at the scripted-content table, Peak TV’s embarrassment of riches can tip into straight-up embarrassment. (Any minute now we’ll get word of an edgy antihero drama being developed for Nick Jr.) But it’s also allowed some exceptionally strange and rare flowers to bloom, shows whose very existence, to say nothing of their success, would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
Those flowers don’t come much stranger than Documentary Now, which is currently in its second season on IFC. Conceived by former Saturday Night Live compadres Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers, Documentary Now is based on what would have been considered, under different circumstances, an insanely niche idea: It’s a comic anthology devoted to sending up documentaries — not the form as a whole, as innumerable mockumentaries had done before it, but individual films, with a faithfulness and specificity that only fans of the sometimes obscure originals would truly appreciate.
“It was right after Fred and I had left SNL,” Hader recalls. “You walk into IFC and there’s Portlandia pictures everywhere. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh man, they might say yes to this crazy idea.’ ” Not only did the network say yes, but it renewed the show for a second and third season before the first episode had even aired.
Perhaps Documentary Now is no stranger an idea than pairing Armisen and a punk musician with no prior TV credits to send up the bohemian insularity of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s startling—and, for documentary fans, immensely gratifying—how faithful Doc Now is to its sources. John Mulaney, another SNL veteran who’s written several episodes, says he’s been taken aback when he comes across posters featuring this season’s two-part finale, “Mr. Runner Up,” which takes its cues from the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. “I keep seeing subway ads and thinking, ‘Why are they advertising The Kid Stays in the Picture?’ ” Mulaney says. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s that dumb thing that we wrote.’ ”
You don’t need to have seen, say, Grey Gardens or The Thin Blue Line to appreciate Documentary Now’s take on direct cinema portraiture or investigative whodunits: The show develops its own jokes, like the string of scenes in “Sandy Passage” where Armisen’s Big Vivvy Van Kimpton carries out increasingly bizarre actions in the background, from sorting ears of corn to swirling a fishbowl full of gin. But for those who know the originals, the attention that the show’s directors, Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, lavish on even the smallest detail, right down to the fake distributor logos at the beginning of each episode, is nothing short of astonishing.
Documentary Now’s love for its source material is so obvious that labeling the show parody seems insufficient. (The exception is the first season’s “Dronez,” a pointed takedown of Vice-style adrenaline junkies.) It’s more like a collection of inspired comic riffs, as much tribute as sendup. “Most of these are documentaries we all love,” Mulaney says. “It’s funny how people are like, ‘Oh, you’re spoofing,’ or, ‘This year you guys are making fun of this.’ It’s like, no, we’re just excited to make our own.”
That affection comes through especially clearly in “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything,” which takes on Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme’s documentary about the one-man show by the late monologuist Spalding Gray. The original has drifted into modest obscurity (it wasn’t released on DVD until 2013, and is unavailable for legal streaming), but it was a staple of the video-store era: You couldn’t pick up a couple of tapes for the weekend without catching a glimpse of its iconic poster, a half-white rectangle with Gray’s head bobbing in a sea of blue. That’s when both Hader and Mulaney, who co-wrote the episode, first encountered it.
Swimming to Cambodia’s ostensible subject is Gray’s experience on the set of The Killing Fields, in which he played a U.S. diplomat in the midst of the Cambodian genocide. But Gray, whose early background was in experimental theater, turns what could have been a collection of chat-show anecdotes into a gripping psychological inquiry, all while staying firmly seated behind a plain wooden desk. Demme preserves the monologue’s stagebound nature, but he brings the cameras onto the stage so that it’s more like being inside Gray’s performance rather than watching from the seats. It’s a thrilling achievement, as cinematic as it is theatrical. Nearly 30 years later, no one has done filmed theater better. It’s also the first of Documentary Now’s two-part Demme tribute; next week’s episode, “Final Transmission,” is the show’s version of Demme’s Stop Making Sense. (With Doc Now’s characteristic meticulousness, both are credited to the fictitious Harrison Renzi.)
Hader doesn’t mimic Gray the way he did James Carville in “The Bunker,” Documentary Now’s sendup of The War Room, but he channels his essence, investing even a mundane recitation of Manhattan street names with a manic intensity. It’s a great comic performance—just savor the way Hader wraps his affected mid-Atlantic accent around the words “Foster-Glocester, Rhode Island”—but it’s invested with a powerful tinge of melancholy as well. That’s especially true for anyone who comes to “Location Is Everything” with a pre-existing connection to Gray’s work, which became increasingly concerned with his depression in the years before his 2004 suicide.
Given how perfectly “Location Is Everything” echoes Demme’s movie, it’s a bit of a shock to find out that it was a last-minute replacement, written and shot within a 12-day period after another planned episode was deemed too expensive to shoot. Hader and Mulaney decline to be specific, hoping to preserve the unused idea for a future season, but they’ll allow that it was meant to take place in several locations around “a large facility.” Mulaney recalls, “The final budgetary note was, ‘Can it all be in one room?’ ” That proved unworkable, but what could be more economical than an episode whose primary props are a table, a chair, and a glass of water?
Mulaney, as it turns out, is an admitted Spalding Gray obsessive, one who can quote Gray’s diaries and the bonus features from Criterion Collection supplements as easily as the monologues themselves. Last year, the New York Times’ Jason Zinoman asked via Twitter if there were any stand-up comedians whose work was influenced by Gray. Mulaney tweeted back, “Does it count if we flat-out copy him?” When he was writing at SNL, Mulaney says he would pitch Gray impersonations for sketches like “Star Wars Auditions,” which are normally just pretexts for the cast to show off their celebrity impersonations. “I was like, ‘What about Bill as Spalding Gray? It’ll be at a table with a glass of water.’” Mulaney recalls. “Somehow it never made it to air.”
It’s too bad we never to see Hader-as-Gray’s audition for Han Solo, but Mulaney and Hader’s shared affection came in handy when they had to turn out a script for “Location Is Everything” in a matter of days. They started brainstorming while shooting the end of “The Bunker,” and that Sunday, they stayed on the phone until 2 a.m. hashing out a finished draft. The method, they both say, was “very SNL.”
Faithful as it is to the original, “Location Is Everything” makes a major departure by bringing in competing voices, in the form of other figures at adjacent desks who pop up to challenge Parker’s version of events: The fifth grader posing wide-eyed questions about his Tai Chi practice turns out to be a skateboarding teen who stole his lunch; the thickly accented Nigerian landlord who offered him a big fat joint was actually the guy who busted him getting high in the bathroom. It’s a smart, practical choice, allowing the episode to show more than a person sitting behind a desk for 22 minutes, but it also functions as a potent critique of the monological form. Why should we believe anything happened the way he says, just because it makes for a good story?
“What’s kind of fun is the character’s getting in trouble for the shit that comedians do,” Mulaney says. “We’ve all had those moments like, ‘I think my father-in-law is going to know this is making fun of him.’ On the Blu-ray of Gray’s Anatomy, there’s an interview with Renee Shafransky, who was Spalding Gray’s girlfriend and wife for years. And she sells him out! She’s like, ‘Yeah, that story didn’t happen the way he told it.’ ”
“I always felt when we were writing it was less calling him out on it and more like we’ve all experienced this,” Hader says. “It’s almost like a horror story, like what if your girlfriend showed up in the middle of your stand-up and went ‘Yeah, that’s not how that happened.’ ”
In recent years, directors like Kate Plays Christine’s Robert Greene have made that kind of self-interrogation an increasingly common part of the documentary form, so perhaps “Location Isn’t Everything” isn’t critiquing Swimming to Cambodia so much as bringing it into the present day. That’s where Spalding Gray, and his work, belong.